Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s ‘The Weight of These Wings’

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Making a great album is a tough challenge. Making a great double album, though? You’re taking on an almost impossible task that many of the best artists can’t even pull off. I’ve made my stance on album length quite clear, with simple math telling us that the longer an album is the more chances you have of making mistakes. The biggest challenge with taking on a double album is finding enough great content to fill it up from start to finish. Most artists can’t put together 10-12 track length album because writing songs is hard. So when I heard Miranda Lambert’s new album would be a double at 24 songs long, I was worried about it. While no doubt the heartbreak and turmoil she’s experienced over the last couple years while also beginning a new chapter of her life would certainly give plenty of inspiration, I was skeptical if she could find enough for a double album. There would undoubtedly be great songs on it, but there could also be ample bad songs that could drag the good down. Not to mention I’ve lost track of how many different albums from major labels have been wrecked by bad production choices. On the flip side the names involved with the project inspires a lot of positive thinking. So with all of this in mind I dug deep into the mammoth-sized double album, The Weight of These Wings.

The album is broken into two 12 song parts, with the first part being called The Nerve and the second part being called The Heart. I’m going to review the first 12 songs together first and the second set after because this is how the album is intended to be listened. The ominous “Runnin’ Just In Case” opens it up and sets the tone for the album perfectly. Written by Lambert and Gwen Sebastian (who is part of writing some of the best songs on the album), the song is about running from the pain of love or love itself, not exactly sure of which it really is. What really captivates me is the raw emotion on display from Miranda, something that happens a lot on this album.

The decidedly upbeat “Highway Vagabond” is bound to be a future single and I’m surprised it wasn’t the follow-up to “Vice.” While the nature of the song is kind of kitschy, it’s also fun-loving and doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why I think many have already gravitated towards it. The album’s second single “We Should Be Friends” is another upbeat song, which Lambert wrote entirely herself. It’s a clever song about Lambert identifying who she has a friend in, from the frankly honest to the heartbroken. She keeps the song simple and it works. I’m not sure if country radio will get behind it though. I have to say I’m glad there are some upbeat songs on this double album because if it were just entirely heartbreak and dark songs it would be a draining listen. Also by having some lighter songs it acts as a great contrast and helps the darker songs stand out even more.

Lambert sings of helping a friend get out of a bad relationship in “Getaway Driver.” Written with Hemby and her boyfriend/Americana artist Anderson East, it’s a somber Bonnie & Clyde type song. Instead of gleefully riding into the sunset guns a blazing like in the movies, we get something real. Lambert duets with East on “Pushin’ Time.” It’s a song about falling in love, which I imagine is based on these two falling in love. Even if you had no clue these two were together when you listen to this song, you can feel the genuineness and love shine through in every aspect of the song. The steel guitar work by Spencer Cullum goes fantastically with the lyrics. This is hands-down one of the best songs of the album.

The Muscle Shoals-influenced “Covered Wagon” is one of those feel good songs that’s easy to sing along with. “Ugly Lights” sees Lambert incorporating a garage country like sound that Aubrie Sellers really brought to light with her debut album. It really suits both Lambert and the song, which is a sort of gritty and dark tune about hiding in a bar with your broken heart. The lyrics do an even better job of capturing this feeling, which doesn’t surprise me considering Lambert wrote it with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose. The bluegrass-tinged “You Wouldn’t Know Me” speaks to the truth of not knowing a person just by asking them how they’re doing. A person can change everyday, so you really don’t know someone. It’s one of the simpler, more overlooked songs of the album, but it’s definitely one of my favorites on The Nerve.

There’s a couple of songs on The Nerve that get away from this simplicity and make things too complicated. “Smoking Jacket” is a straight up sex song. This itself isn’t bad; I’m just calling a spade a spade. What else can be gleaned from the line, “every night he makes his magic on me”? That being said this song just doesn’t do much for me, perhaps due to it being too long. One of my least favorites of the album and the worst on The Nerve is “Pink Sunglasses.” The production on this song is just way overdone and self-indulgent. Not to mention the song feels like it drags. It feels like six minutes when it’s only four. This all takes away from the theme of the song, which centers on the sentimental value and confidence one can gain from simple objects.

The final track of The Nerve is “Use My Heart,” which serves as the perfect transition into The Heart. The reason being is the song revolves around the phrase of “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” To boot it’s a great song, as Lambert sings of dealing with the inner demons of trying to move on and reconcile with what has happened. Lambert wrote the song with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. I point this out because this is one of two songs this specific troika wrote on the album and both songs are excellent.

Kicking off The Heart is “Tin Man,” probably the most heartbreaking song of the album. It’s about Lambert and the tin man of the Wizard of Oz, who famously always wanted a heart, discussing the merits of having one. She explains to him how he doesn’t know what kind of pain he’s asking for when he asks for a heart and it’s not worth the trouble. By the end of the song she offers to trade her heart, which is shattered into pieces and covered in scars, to him in exchange for his armor. Written by Lambert and Jack Ingram (who is quite proficient in the art of writing about heartbreak), this is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from Lambert.

Lambert’s sassy happiness shines through on “For The Birds.” It symbolizes her re-awakening so to speak after her breakup, wanting happiness and sunshine back after going through so much darkness. It’s finally finding that light at the end of a long tunnel. “Good Ol’ Days” is about Lambert willing to go back to where it all began for her to rediscover herself and her truth. It’s about re-examining everything and figuring out just where to go from where you’re at currently. The song does a great job of capturing the humility of the subject, which doesn’t surprise me because Brent Cobb and Adam Hood wrote the song with Lambert. “Tomboy” is a personal anthem from Lambert about her and everyone like her. She’s a proud tomboy who does it her way and this is her way of telling young girls it’s cool to be this way too. For this reason I think this would be a great choice for a single.

If you feel like you need more steel guitar in your life, just listen to “Things That Break” and “Well-Rested.” It’s as thick and infectious as molasses on each song. These are classic heartbreak country songs in every sense. There are a lot of great songs I enjoy on this album, but if I had to pick the best one on this expansive double album it would have to be “To Learn Her.” Written by the praised above troika of Lambert, Monroe and Payne, this song is pure country music. If you asked me to define country music, I would point to a song like this one. The heavy steel guitar makes me smile from ear-to-ear. This song is Lambert at her very best.

The other songwriting trio I absolutely enjoy on this album is Lambert, Hemby and Rose, who get their shining moment on “Keeper of the Flame. “ I didn’t even have to look at the credits to know these three wrote this because their fingerprints are all over it. The very best of these three come together to create this soaring love anthem that you just want to listen to over and over again. I even surprisingly enjoy the synthesizer on this song, which gives the song some real energy and urgency. “Bad Boy” is the weakest track of The Heart, but even it isn’t a bad song. It’s the fact that rest of it is so strong that a just solid song doesn’t quite stand out. While the song relies on the predictable trope of falling in love with the bad boy, I really enjoy the instrumentation. The song starts off with a harder rock edge before giving away to twang pedal steel guitar towards the end.

I really applaud Miranda for going completely outside the box on “Six Degrees of Separation.” I love it when an artist tries something completely different and takes risks and this song is a perfect example of why. The vocal layering combined with the grungy guitars and snappy lyrics make for an infectiously great song. Lambert’s ode to the sun “Dear Old Sun” shows a more subdued soulful side of her. It’s probably the most spiritual Lambert gets on the entire album, as you can really feel the heart in her voice as she sings. Then again Lambert bared her entire self in every part of this album.

The Weight of These Wings closes it’s story with “I’ve Got Wheels.” It’s where Lambert finally moves on from her demons. As she sings, she’s got wheels and now she’s using them to get away from the heartbreak that haunted her for so long. It’s that sobering feeling that you’ve finally picked up all of the pieces and can move on with your life to something after being consumed by something old for so long. And that itself is another chapter that won’t be easy, but Lambert at least knows she’s moving forward now.

After thoroughly listening to The Weight of These Wings from front to back and over again several times, Lambert accomplished something I’ve seen for the first time while running Country Perspective and that’s releasing a great double album. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make her proud because this is nothing to scoff at. If I had to pick the best side, it would definitely be The Heart. There’s not a single bad song on this part of the album, while The Nerve is hampered by the only three missteps of the entire album.

Lambert put every bit of her talent into this album; there was no holding back from her. She utilized some of the best songwriters in country music today, while also showing off her own songwriting chops. We not only get to see her at her most country, but she even takes some risks and pulls them off well too. Frank Liddell, Eric Masse and Glenn Worff for the most part did a great job producing this album and not falling into the usual mainstream pitfalls. Miranda Lambert did something many artists have trouble with and that’s channeling pure, raw energy into beautiful art. The Weight of These Wings is arguably the crowning jewel of Lambert’s entire career.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Yes!

Album Highlights: Tin Man, To Learn Her, Ugly Lights, Runnin’ Just in Case, Vice, Pushin’ Time, Use My Heart, Good Ol’ Days, For The Birds, Six Degrees of Separation, I’ve Got Wheels

Bad Songs: Pink Sunglasses & Smoking Jacket

Wallpaper: None


Album Review – Dave Cobb’s ‘Southern Family’

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Coming into 2016 there was no album with more hype and anticipation than the Southern Family concept album. How could you not be excited for it? The entire album was conceived and produced by Dave Cobb (as well as being released via his own label Elektra Records), the man behind some of the hottest and most critically acclaimed albums in country and Americana over the past few years. He especially became a talked about name in music after producing Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free and Chris Stapleton’s Traveller in 2015. Isbell’s album went number one in four different genres, won two Grammys and we awarded it Album of the Year. Stapleton’s album was universally praised, dominated the 2015 CMA Awards and racked up a couple of Grammys too. Throw in the all-star cast of artists set to take part on the Southern Family album and it’s pretty easy to see why there was so much for hype for it. So after all of this buildup and anticipation, does Southern Family live up to the expectations? For the most part, it absolutely does and features some absolute stunning performances.

Southern Family begins with “Simple Song,” a reflecting and somber song. John Paul White, the former one half of the Civil Wars, performs the song and fits perfectly with it. His voice really adds desperate emotion to the song that lifts it to another level and really allows the listener to connect with it. Jason Isbell follows up with “God Is A Working Man.” Isbell explores the relationship southerners have with God, family and working hard. It very much encapsulates the life of the average southerner. Fans of Isbell’s earlier material will really enjoy this one, as it definitely feels more in the vein of his earlier work. “Down Home” is about the value of home and what it truly means. It’s not about the place, but the moments and people you share it with. Cobb’s cousin Brent Cobb performs this song and I’ll admit at first I really didn’t connect with this song much, but it has grown on me with more listens. I guess this is because while a lot of this album sounds roots-y, this song sounds more mainstream.

Miranda Lambert sounds absolutely great on “Sweet By and By.” The song is about the value of family and the lessons we can learn from them. The “roots meets gospel” feel really suits the song and Lambert well. After hearing this song it confirmed what I theorized months ago when I heard about this project: Lambert needs to get Dave Cobb to produce her music. Together I think they could create truly wonderful music. If I had to pick a favorite from this album, which isn’t easy mind you, I would have to pick Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton’s “You Are My Sunshine.” As soon as the song starts playing and you hear those bluesy and dirty guitar licks, you know it’s a Stapleton song. What does surprise me though is that Morgane takes the lead on this song and is the focal point. And this is an excellent choice. Morgane absolutely gives me chills with her vocal performance and leaves me chomping at the bit for an album from her. Keep in mind this is a song everyone knows and has heard performed by countless people. Yet I think this might be the best version I’ve ever heard of the song. It’s definitive proof that Chris and Morgane Stapleton are the modern-day Johnny and June.

Zac Brown reminds us all of how great he can truly be on “Grandma’s Garden.” It can be easy to forget after his latest singles and rocky album the talent Brown possesses. It’s a really heartfelt song about a grandson learning from his grandma how to live a fulfilling and happy life and her garden serving as the metaphor. The songwriting on this song not only tells a story really well, but also stirs emotion up in the listener. Not to mention the pedal steel guitar play is tremendous. You won’t find a truer country song. “Mama’s Table” is about the value and memories a mother’s table can hold to a family. While a table is a table to some, for others it can be the family heirloom that goes from generation to generation, symbolizing the unity of a family. Again the storytelling and emotional aspects created by the songwriting is great and Jamey Johnson fits the song like a glove. It’s yet another good guest performance from Johnson as we continue to wait for a new album from him.

Southern Family maintains a pretty consistent sound throughout the album, except on “Learning.” Not a big surprise considering Americana artist Anderson East performs it and fits in the vein of his music. This is not necessarily bad, as blue-eyed soul music is very much a part of southern culture as country music. But it can be jarring for the listener after hearing roots based country for the entirety of the album. Holly Williams turns in an impressive performance on “Settle Down.” The song is about finding a person to settle down and spend the rest of your life with after a life of partying and debauchery and being able to accept the other’s faults. The acoustic based production really works well and the down-to-earth folky tone is right in Williams’ wheelhouse.

There are a lot of emotional songs throughout this album, but none more than “I Cried.” Brandy Clark sings about a woman watching her grandfather die in a hospital bed and then later having to see her grandmother struggle to live alone after her husband has died. And all she could do like any person is cry about it all. It’s one of those songs that just leave you speechless after you hear it. The song tackles death in such a simple, human and real way. It hits you like a punch straight to your gut. This is perhaps Brandy Clark’s best performance ever.

With Southern Family being inspired by the popular concept album White Mansions that featured Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter along with others, it’s only fitting their son Shooter Jennings appears on this album. He performs on “Can You Come Over?” and I have to say I’m quite surprised by how much I like it. The rocking steel guitar licks go well with his vocal performance and makes for a pretty fun song. Rich Robinson, founding member of The Black Crowes, brings the album to a close with “The Way Home.” It’s about how true southern culture is still thriving and something to celebrate. Nashville-based choir group The Settles Connection provide the vocals on the song and sound great. And how fitting is it to close this album with a gospel song? Great choice by Cobb to end the album with “The Way Home.”

After listening to Southern Family, you come away with a better understand and feeling of southern culture and lifestyle. It’s very easy to point out the problems that existed in southern culture in the past and the stigma this caused for the south is something that will remain with the culture for years to come. But it’s important to remember the redeeming qualities of the southern culture: family, friends, love, spirituality, home. All of these things southerners should rightly be proud of and point to as their defining qualities that make them great. This album celebrates southern pride with dignity and genuineness that should make any southerner smile. Cobb bringing together all of these artists who clearly understand southern culture, from both mainstream and independent realms, is not only a unifying moment for southern people, but country music in general. That’s something we can all appreciate.

Grade: 10/10